Moving on with our end of season position reviews, today we'll take a look at the wide receivers. But first, here is what we've covered so far:
Going into 2006, Penn State fans were extremely excited about this group of wide receivers. And why shouldn't they be? In 2005 Deon Butler emerged as a big play wide receiver averaging over 18 yards per catch and racking up 9 touchdowns. Jordan Norwood showed great hands and shifty moves as a possession receiver. And most exciting of all was the return of Derrick Williams after only playing half a season in 2005 due to a broken arm. Add freshman Chris Bell to the group and Nittany Lion fans believed they easily had the best group of wide receivers in the Big Ten.
Things started off great in the Akron game as Anthony Morelli hit Deon Butler on his first pass of the season for a 42 yard touchdown. I jokingly turned to my uncle who was sitting next to me in the stands and said, "It's all down hill from here." I didn't realize how far the hill would drop.
It was all down hill from here
Derrick Williams never got it going this year. They started off trying to get him the ball ten times a game. They sent him on pass patterns, lined him up in the backfield, gave him the ball on end arounds, and put him on punt and kick returns. They even lined him up at quarterback a few snaps. None of it worked. While he ran for a touchdown and returned a punt all the way, his lone receiving touchdown this season came against Akron on a nice double move that left the corner standing at the 15 yard line. Where was that the rest of the season?
The versatile Derrick Williams
Jordan Norwood started off the season hot with 13 catches and a touchdown in the first two games. Then he inexplicably caught a case of the dropsies and couldn't consistently catch the ball the rest of the season. In his defense, it seemed most of the time he had a defender draped on his back or he was climbing a ladder to make an acrobatic catch, but those were plays Nittany Lion fans became accustomed to seeing from him in 2005. He still finished the season as the team's second leading receiver with 41 catches and 437 yards.
It was a rare thing to see a Penn State wide receiver standing in the endzone with the ball this year
Deon Butler was once again the feature act of the group. He consistently showed better skills in getting open and catching the ball than his teammates. But even he disappeared for most of the season and finished with only two touchdowns, both of which came in the first two games. He did have one amazing game against Northwestern where he caught 11 passes for a school record 216 yards. Amazingly, that one game accounted for 24% of his catches and 38% of his yards for the entire season.
Chris Bell was supposed to be the big physical receiver Penn State fans have been craving after years of watching Michigan's receivers pick up apart. He started out promising for a true freshman catching 5 balls in the first three games. But then that was it. Bell didn't catch another ball the rest of the season. Not that the coaches didn't try. They threw to him a few times, but he either ran the wrong route or dropped the pass. As the season wore on there were more Superhero sightings than Chris Bell sightings in Beaver Stadium.
I'm being pretty harsh on this group of kids. Their stats don't lie, but I don't think they paint the whole picture. Let's keep in mind that last season they had a seasoned senior quarterback who used to play wide receiver himself. This year they got a first year starter that hadn't seen a dozen meaningful snaps in his previous two years with the program. I don't want to put it all on Morelli, but how many times did Butler have his man beat by five yards and Morelli overthrew an easy touchdown?
The group I blame the most for the lackluster play of this group is the coaches. It seems like they never figured out how to utilize Williams. The only way they could get him the ball was with bubble screens and end arounds with an occasional deep fly pattern. These few plays were so easy to read that defenses keyed on them and swarmed all over Williams when he caught the ball. He could never get open space to utilize his speed. His best game was Minnesota where he had 4 catches for 95 yards.
DWill could never find room to run
The coaches don't seem to understand that their receivers and small but fast. You have to get them the ball in space and let them run away from people. Don't run seven yard out patterns where the guy catches the ball with a defender on his back as he's going out of bounds. You'll never get YAC doing that. And you can't expect them to go up and get a jump ball in the endzone. That's not playing to their skills. These guys need to get the ball on slants and crossing patterns where they can catch the ball and run. The out pattern should be used only to keep corners honest from cheating inside. Every Penn State fan remembers the Illinois game where we watched in frustration as they threw out pattern after double covered out pattern. The play calling in that game was so bad that Deon Butler noted in the press that the middle was open but the coaches wouldn't call anything that involved passing over the middle.
In my preseason preview I expected huge things from this group. I scored them an A and said they were the deepest group of talent on the team next to the linebackers. In my midseason review I downgraded them to a B based on the lack of performance. They haven't gotten any better in my view. Sadly, it's not completely their fault. They had coaches that put them at a disadvantage and a quarterback learning on the job with a swiss cheese offensive line. But I can't ignore the numerous dropped passes and lack of production. This group gets a C for a final grade.